|11 November 2005||Archive||Subscribe for free by E-mail or|
By F. Merlin Flower
A home along the riverside in Amjikarai, a place in Chennai, India. It seems a dream-like situation, but the residents along the river Coovum are far from happy, and just hope for a chance to get away. People who have seen this river in the heart of the city would hardly be surprised to hear this. The river has ceased to be a carrier of water; it scurries forward with all the waste of the city instead. Along its banks live many of the people of the city who lack a proper home.
In Amjikarai there are more than fifty houses, dangerously packed close to the river Coovum. When the river swells, these slum dwellers are forced to the mercy of the street. They count themselves lucky if they get a place to sleep and have meals at least twice a day. It is at this point that homelessness stares them in the face, otherwise they try to live with the meager resources and places available.
Many of the residents have been living in Amjikarai for more than two decades. Ask Kanagavalli, a resident of the slum, counting 24 years in the same river side. "It's not that bad. My life goes on with or without a house," she says as a matter of fact.
Her daughter Mala is less optimistic. With every election came loads of promises of new houses and allotment of lands. But no promise held its ground. "We don't even know which authority to approach for a house," Mala says dejectedly.
Mala in her home at Amjikarai.
Mala has three children, and unlike her neighbors she strived hard to provide education to her children. Today her oldest daughter Ammu is in college, and the two younger children are still at school. "From here the journey is hard. I don't have money for their higher education," she adds.
Children being in college in itself is a great achievement in a place where the average schooling is only till seventh standard. But the situation is changing for the better if one goes by the words of K. Sivanandan., Principal of Thiru Vee Kaa Higher Secondary School for Boys, Shenoy Nagar. Children from seven slums including the one at Amjikarai go to this school. Sivanandan was instrumental in greatly reducing the dropout rate in the school.
From a dropout rate hovering around ten to fifteen in a class a decade ago, it's only to or three now. Sivanandan enforced a strict rule according to which a student taking leave had to do so only with a written letter from the parents. Students who failed to obey the rule were suspended for a day. "This is for the student to reflect why he had been suspended and how better the day could have been spent," Sivanandan said. With an addition of counselling, the situation has changed for the better.
Not only has the dropout rate decreased, but the school has also earned the faith of the parents. Of the 1329 students, the parents of almost 1000 come for the quarterly parent-teacher meeting.
Sivanandan doesn't find any difference between the students from the slums and other households, when it comes to learning. He vouches for the fact that in many classes they perform better. Sivanandan is convinced that education could change the socio-economic situation of the slum residents and homeless people.
Mala too has the hope that the education of her children could change her life. No doubt then that her children's education gains a higher priority for Mala than a home. "First education and then home," she says.
After marriage, Mala did have a good home, but a squabble with her husband forced her back to the slum. Her house has a bathroom and no toilet. To answer nature's call they use the riverside, and this psychological torture, according to Ammu, Mala's daughter, "is the most unbearable part in being homeless." They get five pots of water and do boil the water before drinking. Ammu's house is cleaner compared to the other houses where three or four people share the same room. "They laugh at me when I ask them to be a bit cleaner," says Ammu. As a result, they get a lot of infections like skin problems, typhoid, dysentery, and fever.
"In addition to this, there is a higher risk of leptospirosis and malaria," says Dr. Renjani of U.K. Hospital, Anna Nagar. She said that many of the diseases could easily be prevented by observing basic hygienic habits like drinking boiled water and keeping the environment clean. She stressed the importance of proper drainage to prevent stagnant water.
(Continued on next column)
(Continued from previous column)
But in Amjikarai, the drain and the path are the same, with people using the small drain as a walkway. They go to the government hospital nearby for treatment of their diseases.
If it was a failed marriage which brought Mala back to the slum, it was societal pressures which compelled Rajashree, formerly Raju, to seek shelter here. Rajashree is a eunuch (a male-to-female transsexual) and was willing to pay for a proper house in a decent location and with a legal title. But repeated refusals to rent to her forced her to make a home in the slum of Amjikarai.
Rajashree at home in Amjikarai.
From her house, one can see the river flowing slowly, black, wide, and menacing. "If you dip an anklet it will turn black. Need a black cloth? Just dip a white cloth--easy," says Rajashree with a wry sense of humour. What if it rains heavily? I know to swim, comes the reply. It seems Rajashree still maintains contact with her parents and goes there once the river crosses the danger mark.
But Mala's only shelter is the present place. "We'll have to go with the river if a high tide comes without warning," she points out. Mala is employed as a helper in a local hospital and earns enough "to have good food." Good food for her is vegetables on the plate every day.
Unlike Mala, most of the residents in the slum depend on making brooms for a living. Maheswari makes brooms, each being sold for anything around fifty rupees (Rs.46 = US$1). Depending on the season, the price fluctuates. The brooms are made with a type of leaves coming from the neighbouring states. During the rainy season, these people are out of work. Maheswari says, "I don't have a house, nor do I have enough to eat." Her dream home is a two room house away from the river and in her name.
The men in the slum make concrete slabs, and Rajashree goes for "collection" in the slab shops. Collection is getting money from a shop for the blessing given by the eunuchs, and almost all of the eunuchs earn a living this way. Eunuchs consider themselves to be wives of a Hindu god, and even have a ceremony of marriage. Maybe it is because of this belief that they are given money for their blessings. On special occasions like the birth of a new child, they get more money and are asked to bless the child. Ironically, it is the same parents who discriminate against the eunuchs.
How do her neighbours view her? Her talk laced with humour becomes serious with this question. "I don't talk to them at all," she says. It seems that the men ridicule her, and she in turn hates them. "If I laugh at any of them, they come for me at night," she explained.
Rajashree is not the only one to be subjected to lewd comments. Any woman coming here has to bear this, says Ammu. Girls have little safety and privacy, with the houses too close for privacy and no feeling of neighbourhood protection. Mala too doesn't allow her daughter to mingle with her neighbours.
Every night there are at least two fights, says Maheswari.
The place has hardly changed all these years, according to Kanagavalli. The only difference, she says, is the electric connection in the houses now. The electricity is taken from the houses in the vicinity of the slum, which is illegal. The houses are built with coconut leaves, as was done decades ago, with the recent addition of concrete floors. Stretched metal sheets make their door, and kerosene stoves are used for cooking. The land belongs to the government, but all the residents have voting rights and an address. They don't have any hope of a new house and are sure they'll have to leave the place as and when the government wishes.
The stink of the river makes people walking on the nearby road hold their noses. How about the residents? "Well, that definitely is the least of the problems here, believe me," says Rajashree. These squatters have more important priorities before them than the odor.
Postscript: Three days after conducting these interviews, the river did swell up, with Chennai receiving 27 cm of rain in a single day. The deluge claimed about seven lives, most of them caught up in the drainage. In Amjikarai, two houses were swept away by the river, but not before the residents had evacuated. But the other people, including Mala and Ammu, are still living inches from the roaring river. And the rain still continues.
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